I’m a big animation fan and I’ve seen an awful lot of animated films. I’ve often thought that the western genre is one that would lend itself well to animation, but a cartoon western is pretty rare. Today’s film is one of the few. From 1965 it’s “The Man from Button Willow.”
The story concerns Justin Eagle (Dale Robertson), a government agent who works undercover in the western landscape of California. He’s the ultimate good guy. Not only does he catch bad guys, but he never misses church on Sunday, has an adopted young asian daughter, Stormy (Barbara Jean Wong), and he doesn’t even mess around with the more-than-willing ladies of the town. He’s also got a grizzled old sidekick named Sorry (Edgar Buchanan).
One Sunday after church, Justin spot two mysterious figures hanging out around town. There have been some strange land dealings going on lately, what with the railroad making it’s way across the country. Perhaps these men are the ones who have been intimating settlers so they can acquire their land. You can tell by the look in his eye that Justin is suspicious, but without anything to go on, he, Stormy, and Sorry all head back to Justin’s ranch. Sorry even sings a song in route. Yup, it’s a musical, too.
Upon arriving at the ranch, the two mysterious figures are quickly forgotten and the story begins to focus on Justin’s two horses, Rebel and Savannah. It seems that Savannah is about to give birth and all the animals are thrilled. The animals don’t speak, but there are numerous birds, a dog, and even a skunk who pal around with our heroes.
After the colt is born, we get to spend a lot of time watching the youngster play and frolic with the dog and the skunk. Of course, there is a sequence where he gets himself into trouble…jumping over a piece of broken fence only to get cornered by a mean old mountain lion. Rebel ends up saving the day, in the end.
Just when all the cutesy stuff is about to get to be too much, Justin receives word that he’s needed in San Francisco. It seems that a senator who has been fighting against the crooked land speculators has been kidnapped and is being held on a pirate ship in the bay. Now it’s up to Justin, with the help of a Swede named Andy, to get on board, battle the pirates, and save the senator.
First off…as I watched this I was really kind of hoping that there wasn’t really a place called “Button Willow.” Turns out there is indeed a Buttonwillow, California. I mean no disrespect to the fine people who live there, but if I was crafting a western hero…calling him “The Man from Button Willow” doesn’t seem like it would strike fear in the hearts of the outlaws. I like my western towns with tough names like Tombstone, Deadwood, or Last Chance. Might as well have just called him “The Man from Foo-foo Sissyville.” It doesn’t help that much of the story seems like it’s trying to be “Bambi” with horses.
Now, don’t let that comparison give you the wrong idea. The animation in this film comes nowhere close to the brilliance of “Bambi,” or any other Disney film, for that matter. I’m not saying that it’s all bad, but being on the same level as Disney is no simple task. It is easy to spot some of the shortcomings in the animation…several sequences are reused repeatedly and the backgrounds do lack depth. I did, however, enjoy some of the character designs. That’s thrown off a bit, though, by the fact that the design of Justin is made to look normal, with no cartoonish type characteristics, while all the other characters have exaggerated features.
The film does manage to redeem itself a bit during it’s last 20 minutes. That’s when the story takes a huge shift…moving away from the cutesy baby horse stuff and focusing, instead, on battling pirates. These sequences reminded me a bit of the classic Johnny Quest TV series. The animation and background art is even better in these scenes! This is how the whole film should’ve been approached! It’s not enough to salvage the film, but it is a fun sequence.
There is so much to love in the western genre. Ropin’ and ridin’, shootin’ and lovin’ against a the picturesque American landscape. These are the things that make a western fun, sadly, there is very little of it in “The Man from Button Willow.” You just can’t replace that stuff with baby horses.